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The Machine Mandate

A space opera universe where artificial intelligences have achieved independence from humanity and formed the collective known as the Mandate. All titles are standalones and have different protagonists (all of whom are lesbians), though some recurring characters appear throughout.

Machine’s Last Testament (novel; takes place several centuries before the rest) 

And Shall Machines Surrender (novella)

Made of Knives (free  prequel short story with the same characters from And Shall Machines Surrender)

Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast (novella)

Where Machines Run with Gold (free prequel short story with the same characters from Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast)

Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster (short prequel story with the same characters from Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast)

Shall Machines Divide the Earth (novella)

Together We Will Hunt Again (short prequel story that bridges Shall Machines Divide the Earth and Where Machines Redeem the Lost)

Where Machines Redeem the Lost (novella)

Her Pitiless Command

An epic fantasy lesbian retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’, taking place in a world based on Southeast and South Asian cultures where the primary from of magic-technology is powered by the dead.

Winterglass (novella)

Mirrorstrike (novella)

 

Featured

Short Fiction

2020

‘The City Still Dreams of Her Name’ in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A city incarnated in human form pursues her instances across timelines, seeking to change the terrible destiny of the woman she loves.

‘We Will Become as Monsters’ in The Future Fire. A scavenger who lives near a deadly monster-labyrinth comes upon a dying general, who promises her wealth, concubines, and more power than she’s ever dreamed of.

2019

‘That August Song’ in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. For ages uncounted, humanity is defended from the monsters of sea by pilot-priests, who combat them within the living weapons known as vanquishers. Mecha fantasy.

‘Where Machines Run with Gold’ in The Future Fire. A soldier takes on a beheading dare and comes to meet her agreed-upon sentence in a small, strange city. Space opera Sir Gawain and the Green Knight retelling, takes place in the same universe as And Shall Machines Surrender.

‘Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster’. On a remote planet, a convent harbors a deadly secret buried beneath quiet violence–a secret that the woman known only as the Alabaster Admiral will obtain at any cost. A story from the perspective of a young woman forced into religion by violent imperialism. Takes place after ‘Where Machines Run With Gold’ but before And Shall Machines Surrender.

‘Tiger, Tiger Bright’ in The Dark Magazine. A woman in contemporary Bangkok harbors a lifelong curse. A woman who calls herself a tiger offers help.

2018

‘The Five Secret Truths of Demonkind‘ in Big Echo. The earth is cursed; humans are doomed to become monsters. A demon breaches virtue’s fortress in search of God.

‘Red as Water, White as Ruin’ in Mythic Delirium. An expedition journeys to a land devastated by an unknown apocalypse, navigating an impossible curse and an impossible survivor. Secondary-world horror/dark fantasy.

‘The Owls of Juttshatan’. On a cold world of slow-moving terns, a child grows in the shadow of her mother the war hero. She is a creature of peace, raised in quiet among maps and dreams and owls. But she can be more, if she chooses. A space opera novelette of brutal bildungsroman. Prequel to ‘Autodidact’

Continue reading “Short Fiction”

Book Reviews: LOVE KILLS TWICE and LOVE BLEEDS DEEP by Rien Gray

The first book of the Fatal Fidelity series was my favorite of 2021 and the second book beats it without trying. These books are noir romances (or, in current subcategory parlance, suspense romances) and follow the emotional (and physical, and sexual) trajectories of a budding bisexual femme fatale and the assassin she hired to get rid of her abusive husband. This sounds glib—the books are more raw than this description makes it sound, and they don’t shy away from the emotional extremis of their characters’ circumstances. The domestic abuse Justine suffers at her husband’s hand is not depicted graphically but the emotional consequences, and her PTSD, are. Campbell, the non-binary assassin she hires, is a smooth killer in a suit but also has their own problems: combat trauma and the fear that one day they’ll become a monster. It’s a potent combination, providing a setup for the two of them to share not just sexual chemistry but exchange vulnerabilities.

Book one deals with the process of husband deletion, and the physical stakes are pretty low (since he’s an out-of-shape college professor and Campbell is, uh, a professional killer). The emotional stakes are strong though, and it’s pretty interesting to see Justine’s growing attraction to someone who’s very much from a different kind of life (she runs an art gallery and, up to this point, has led an ordinary life).

The second book ramps up everything else (including the sex! I feel the second book is much denser with it than the first, which does make perfect sense for the characters), pitting Campbell against an ex-military interrogator who’s menacing an American diplomat in France. There’s a much more thorough exploration of their past, and a nod to the horrors of the military-industrial complex that I found succinct and well-done.

Lunch might be some hastily assembled sandwiches, but with perfect ingredients, there’s no way to go wrong. “With the Legion, or with the mercenaries?”

He makes a vague gesture. “They are both symptoms of the same disease. Leave the poor and broken with nothing but a gun and they will pick it up for the first person that offers them a reason. We have to, so we can survive. France being kinder to me was coincidence.”

“But you wanted to stay?” I ask.

Ulysse’s smile fades. “I would be ashamed to return to South Africa. When I could have fought for her freedom, I ran. Those that shed their blood deserve better than breaking bread with a coward.”

It’s certainly not what I would have expected reading the first book, and this as well as other aspects made me rate Love Bleeds Deep a good bit higher than Love Kills Twice. The way Campbell’s PTSD symptoms are written can be difficult to read, in that it’s so well done and unflinching. At the sentence level, I like how smooth the prose it; it goes along at a good clip without sacrificing rhythm.

By the end of the second book, Justine has developed a lot, and it’s great to see how she and Campbell complement each other (and help each other stay whole, or at least not fall apart during moments of great stress). I’m really looking forward to the third book, Love Burns Bright.

Book Reviews: BLACK BUCK, AGAINST THE LOVELESS WORLD

I picked up Against the Loveless World, a book about a Palestinian refugee who narrates the story from her confinement in an Israeli prison. The publisher comps the book to Her Body and Other Stories which I find a little odd (it doesn’t have much in common in subject or in tone), but in any case the writing is as enchanting as it is hard-hitting. Nahr is being interviewed by a white journalist she describes only as ‘the Western woman’ (CN for a gang-rape mention):

The Western woman put her hand up. She glanced down at her notepad, covered her written questions with both hands, inhaled deeply, and blinked one of those exaggeratedly long blinks—as if she were breathing through her eyelids—then said, “I read somewhere that you were gang-raped the night Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.”
I raised one eyebrow, which seemed to make her uneasy. In my peripheral view, Lena’s lips turned up almost imperceptibly.
The woman continued, “I can only imagine the horror of that night, and I’m sorry to bring it up.”
“What makes you think it’s okay to ask me these things?”

It’s good. It’s also a huge relief to read a book where no character exposits how elven aging works or how the conlang has five hundred words for ‘beige’—sometimes you get genre burnout, and the next explanation regarding the functions of a space empire or magic system becomes completely unbearable; you need to read something else to breathe. By no means is Against the Loveless World a cheerful read, but there’s a wryness to it: Nahr is not a cipher victim on which the reader may project their idea of what an Arab woman and refugee should be like. It’s odd to say, but this is such an easy book to read despite its subject matter, which I think separates it from outsider exploitation. Books about Arab women being miserable written by white people are an oppressively miserable affair to read, if they are at all readable.

Saying that this is a book about resilience seems trite, though it is about that. There are stretches that are very hard to read as Nahr endures successive rapes, and once those are past and she comes to live in Palestine, she has an unstable life disrupted constantly by raids, attacks, the arrests and brutalizing of her loved ones. Parts of the book are written with a surprisingly breezy tone, but there’s always an undercurrent of grimness and fear of what’s to come. It’s complex, demanding, and very angry.

The day that changed my life was like every other day before it, except that it changed my life. I suppose that makes it as important as a birthday, wedding, or bankruptcy, which is why I celebrate the twentieth of May every year like it’s my birthday. Why the hell not?

As with any other day, my alarm went off at 6:15 a.m. The buzzing interrupted an unremarkable dream that left me with morning wood. But instead of rubbing one out, I kissed my photo of my girlfriend, Soraya; straightened my leaning tower of books; said good morning to my posters of Scarface, The Godfather, and Denzel as Malcolm X, and stood in front of my mirror, taking stock of the person staring back at me.

I didn’t know it back then, but I was, and am, an attractive Black man. At six two, I’m taller than average, and my skin, comparable to the rich caramel of a Werther’s Original, thanks to my pops, is so smooth you wouldn’t believe it’s not butter. My teeth are status quo and powerful, also known as white and straight, and my hair is naturally wavy even though I usually keep it short with a tight fade. Goddamn! The kid looked good and he didn’t even know it. I took a deep breath, hopped in the shower, and began my morning routine.

Black Buck is such a ridiculously fun book even while it goes for the jugular of racism in start-up culture. It’s a bit Death of a Salesman, and it’s a bit… almost satirical self-help? One of the slickest books around while absolutely not flinching from the reality of white supremacy. Most of it is of course larger-than-life and exaggerated, the heartwarming beats can be a little corny (I love them though), and there is more voice than prose.

It’s a book that is hard to say anything bad about because it’s just so smooth, and it’s uplifting despite the way it ends (and despite the way Darren not getting everything he wants, and being subjected to a final injustice by force of white supremacy). It incorporates side-characters who are marginalized differently from the protagonist without ever making me feel this is done for the sake of ‘sounding’ progressive: the Black lesbian character is charming and vicious. I predict this is a book that’s going to be optioned in no time, it has that kind of buzz and sheen to it, and it’s something I’d genuinely love to see onscreen.


I’ve switched newsletter platform to Revue! You can subscribe and view previous issues here. Honestly I don’t think Revue is the best (the formatting UI is almost as much of a nightmare as WordPress block editor), but it’s still a format I prefer over blogging, so if you want to keep up with what I’m reading or watching or writing, that is the place to do it more than this blog.

On Asking for More Lesbian Options

I was reading reviews of a lesbian book that’s advertised as very dark and reception to that book seems polarized. It got me thinking about the permissible limits of lesbian media and how those are different from the limits of M/F or M/M media.

I don’t care to relitigate the ‘messy queer art’ discourse since I remain firm on my stance that the content is not the messiness, as it were, so I’ll be talking simply in terms of content in and of itself rather than speculations about authorial intent or experiences. The definition of dark varies widely; there’s some content touted as dark that I find very silly, and content touted as dark that I go ‘hm, not for me, bye’. But if you’re like me—like a lot of lesbians who gravitate toward the more ambivalent end of things—you’ll probably find discourse like ‘Akemi Homura is a psycho lesbian trope and that’s why Madoka is homophobic’ exhausting, especially when few take issue with Tokyo Ghoul having a literally predatory gay man character (he wants to cannibalize the protagonist) or Hisoka from Hunter x Hunter being the only gay man in the early story (possibly the only one period?) and he’s a pedophile.

This isn’t to say the characters from either HxH or TG are good (I think they are homophobic caricatures) but Homura is… well… just not as alarming. She doesn’t sexually assault anyone ala Shirai Kuroko from A Certain Scientific Railgun and it seems the bar for a lesbian character to be seen as a ‘psycho lesbian trope’ is astonishingly low. Many people would never think to complain about any of the gay male murderers and war criminals in Golden Kamuy, or how the homoeroticism of this show is inextricable from violence, but if it’s a lesbian—well, time to bring out the microscope! Is she ‘psychotic’? Is she too mean? Too violent? Too angry? Hmm!

Puella Magi Madoka Magica: 5 Reasons Why Homura Did Nothing Wrong (& 5 Ways  She's The Anime's Real Villain)

(For the record, I like Golden Kamuy but there are… issues, especially since the only trans character gets killed off. And to some extent I think the homoeroticism is playful on the author’s part—I don’t believe he’s a homophobe; the scenes of gay sexuality are depicted with enthusiasm and affection—but we’re looking at the reception of this versus the reception of lesbian characters.)

Looping back to books, which is more the point, the title I was looking at is on the very far end of dark. It’s not something I would enjoy—hence the ‘not for me, bye’ reaction—but it doesn’t bother me that it exists (it has prominently placed content warnings). The thought of someone who objects to Homura coming across it does amuse me—this work would drive them to apoplexy—and that exposes the limits of what lesbian media ‘gets’ to be. Because what Homura gets up to is utterly tame.

In much the same way, there are M/M books published by big five presses that are straight up about ‘sexy’ affairs between a slave owner and theirs slave. Remember when M/M small press Riptide did an in-universe ad for human trafficking? Sure, it’s not a big five/big four imprint, but…

But the uproar continued to grow, as authors and readers shared Riptide’s previous missteps: in 2016, it apologised after one of its novels featured a black character who was referred to as “Dark Chocolate Love Monkey”; earlier, it also apologised for a website for a series set in a world where slavery remained legal, which included fake ads for buying and recruiting slaves.

Unsurprisingly it also turned out the press was run by racists. Which is to say, I’m not asking for an alternate universe where it’s F/F books that get the big bucks for wildly racist slavery narratives (and racism should be criticized regardless of the author’s queerness). But it would be nice to have a middle ground between that and… this.

‘This’ meaning a media/consumption landscape where it feels like lesbian characters can only be two things: abject victims (of homophobic attacks, ‘corrective’ rape, and various associated traumas) or balls of sugary fluff who must be all things nice and who never has negative or angry thoughts. Obsessed with a girl? That’s a psycho lesbian, buddy. Kills a man? That’s a misandrist, it’s homophobic to write her like that. It’s a traumatized victim (who must not lash out; what if that makes her a man hater?!) or a personification of cotton candy, there is no third (let alone fourth or fifth) option.

Shall Machines Divide the Earth up for pre-order and other news

The pre-order for my next Machine Mandate book is up! Links: AmazonAmazon UKAmazon CABarnes and NobleiBooks, and Kobo. Paperback edition will be available at a later time.

Like most of the others, this is a novella, though a bit longer than Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast. It also has the advantage of being a true standalone, which is to say you genuinely don’t need to read any of the other Machine Mandate books or short stories (I’ll release a short story associated with this book at one point, but that’s more of a bonus character study than plot-relevant). This is the book I talked about writing for ages: Fate/zero but with lesbians, far-future AIs instead of heroic spirits, and a pinch of the Orpheus/Eurydice story.

On a graveyard star, machines run a deadly tournament and draw humans like moths to a flame with a priceless promise. Partner with an artificial intelligence and fight to the death. Win and receive your heart’s desire.

War veteran Thannarat has sought this hidden world to realize a single goal: bringing back the dead. To fulfill this wish, she joins the game alongside a seductive AI who pledges to give her victory. The tournament is full of lethal secrets—and so is the AI that professes to be her weapon. Yet to have what she needs, Thannarat will sacrifice everything. Her home world, the woman she once loved, and herself.

All she has to do is defy the game’s inescapable rule: that in the end, the only true victors are the machines.

I’m extremely pleased with the cover. The artist, as with all the others, is Rashed AlAkroka. Yes there will be… fairly obvious counterparts to certain heroic spirits. I won’t spoil. You’ll see.

Otherwise, I started a Substack. I’m finding it more intuitive to use than WordPress’ block editor (and more convenient than Medium), which seems to grow more user-hostile by the month, but also I feel people just don’t read blogs anymore. I’ll still keep this one updated, but a lot of my on-the-fly thoughts will show up on Substack instead (including what shows I’m watching, what books I’m reading, that kind of thing).

Year’s End Round-Up

Writing/reading

This year I published two books! That’s a lot, for me, especially given that Machine’s Last Testament is a full-length novel and the longest thing I’ve ever had published, having taken me three entire years to write (on and off, between other books); it’s probably my most character-driven one, since this length gave me a lot more room to work with. Here are some of my favorite passages from it.

The other shoppers give her wide berth, a reminder that she should’ve gone home to change before setting foot here. The clothes Taheen made her wear—their design, an affair of periwinkle-gray shards and ember fragments—give her away at a glance. A slumming voyeur, smelling of expensive theaters and debonair actors and absurd cocktails. She used to hate those misery tourists, the sight and scent of them filling her with rage; even young it was fully-formed rage and she imagined their flesh bursting like ripe papaya, citizenship spilling out of them like rotten seeds.

She rubs her hands together, fingers tingling with nervous energy, with remembered anger. She meets no one’s gaze as she exits, knowing she won’t remember their faces; that like the Bureau has trained her to, she will abstract them to category tags and then forget about them entirely. Citizen class theta, citizen class theta, citizen class theta. She will not wish to recall them.

“You should not enter this area again, citizen,” her guidance murmurs. “It causes you undue distress.”

That one thing she misses from her time as probationary resident. The blessed, total silence. The freedom from this vapid nagging voice, this panoptic chaperoning presence.

Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast was done much faster, being much faster-paced and more actiony. It’s a little darker than my other ones in where it arrives at the conclusion, but I like to think it’s still a fun read. The Alabaster Admiral is a blast to write, though hard to make the protagonist, and only possible in this book because of the unique nature of the conflict. I might do another book about her someday down the road, though.

I had two short stories out this year (what can I say, I mostly write books now): ‘The City Still Dreams of Her Name’ in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and We Will Become as Monsters’ in The Future Fire. Again, very different kinds of stories: one is about an incarnated city chasing fate across timelines, one is about a dead warlord pushing one final time from beyond the grave to realize her goals.

In terms of reading, Dionne Brand’s Theory (recommended to me by the excellent J. Moufawad-Paul) is the best thing I’ve read this year, with the caveat that I don’t read as many books a year as I used to. Not for lack of trying: the issue I keep running into is that a lot of books fail to hold my interest beyond the first few pages, often because of the voice is obnoxious or the prose at the sentence level is simply very bad.

Anime watched

Shit. I don’t remember what actually aired in 2020 and what aired in 2019.

The most memorable title for me this year was First Inspector, which exceeded expectations after the uneven third season. It wraps everything up in an incredibly satisfying way, and the fist fight in the literal brain juices was something. Still no idea why Akane was put in solitary confinement, but it’s also clear there’s going to be more Psycho-Pass. Whee!

Deca-dence was a total dark horse, a TV original that’s very stylish, fun, and sort of like if you take Attack on Titan and make Eren a girl, and then also drop the convoluted subplots about shifters, the weird character arcs, and also the very strange flirtations with fascism. It’s nothing innovative in terms of themes and plot (though the twist in episode two will catch most people by surprise), but it does all of it really well.

I’m also watching Vlad Love, a brand-new Oshii Mamoru (of Ghost in the Shell fame) that’s a bizarro lesbian vampire romcom. It makes me think a bit of Studio Trigger in tone (and Banba, the protagonist, is almost absurdly horny), though I trust Oshii to be… much less creepy.

Games played

Uhhhhhhhh. I don’t game that much anymore but this year I enjoyed Ooblets (which I probably should get back to now that they’ve added more content) and Griftlands a lot, and Planet Zoo is always a good and relaxing time. And then there’s Genshin Impact, which I wrote about a little here.

It’s a very beautiful game, though flawed and exploitative as all gacha games are.

Recent reads: MY DARK VANESSA, THORN

Out of curiosity I picked up My Dark Vanessa and ended up not finishing it. Not because it’s just so problematic but because it feels like an airport novel. It’s neither shocking nor messy; it’s just tedious and predictable.

I can see why this got a huge book deal in that it’s exactly the kind of book people who don’t read books would pick up (which explains why it has a Stephen King blurb). A film option’s bound to happen at some point, starring a petite white actress who’s indistinguishable from the other white actresses.

Thorn by [Anna Burke]

This one surprised me a lot because I didn’t expect to get past the protagonist being a teenager (she’s probably 17?). I liked it much, much better than Compass Rose.

They say the Huntress rides out when the sun is at its farthest and Winter has her jaws buried deep in the heart of the warm, green world. In the mountain valleys, they swear you can hear her hounds on the knife’s edge of the wind, howling down the peaks in a spray of teeth. The Huntress rides behind them mounted on a great white bear with a horn of silver and bone at her lips and a spear cut from the living heart of a mountain pine at her side. No beast can stand before her charge, and every northern child knows that the Huntress stalks the snows, looking for the lost, the unwary, and the bold alike.

A lesbian retelling of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ set in a wintry mountain. Off the bat it’s much better than the Disney take, because whereas Disney’s Belle is a cishet girl whose ‘difference’ is that she reads books, Thorn‘s Rowan is well… a lesbian. Unlike Compass Rose this isn’t set in a queer-normative world, so unfortunately for her being a lesbian carries real cost of persecution, especially since her father wants to marry her off to a boy. I’m not a fan of this kind of setup usually, but here it more or less works because the specter of comphet doesn’t loom too closely as Rowan spends most of the book in the Huntress’ castle. You can really tell it’s written by a lesbian because the ‘Beast’ is a beautiful ice domme in hunting leathers who rides a huge bear. The love story is excellent, the prose is pretty great, and though the beginning runs a bit slow as a whole this is one of the better fairytale retellings out there. Dramatic, gorgeous imagery, and paced just right.

Ghost in the Shell Watch Guide

Ghost in the Shell used to be my favorite cyberpunk thing before Psycho-Pass came along. I think for me Psycho-Pass, which is a piece of media heavily in conversation with GITS (there is a homage to it in one OP, where Akane is shown falling backward from a building), just goes both deeper and broader than its spiritual predecessor. Still, GITS is pretty good. It’s also… I think there are three different continuities by now? I mean, it’s an enormous clusterfuck. The quality varies widely since completely different teams of writers are at the helm of each of these things. In some cases even the Major’s voice actor changes. The tones are also pretty different.

Content warnings are going to be sparse because it’s been ages and I haven’t recently rewatched. Sorry. I don’t recall much (if any) sexual assault. Also while allegedly in the manga the Major is probably bisexual, this is never really demonstrated in any of the anime adaptations.

Watch Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence Movie Sub & Dub | Action ...

Continue reading “Ghost in the Shell Watch Guide”

Psycho-Pass Watch Order

I shill Psycho-Pass a lot. Like… a lot a lot. It remains my absolute favorite media franchise ever because it does so much. The only way it could be more custom-tailored for me is if all the protagonists were lesbians. The main conceit is that in future Japan, a system understood to be a machine network measures people’s character and psychological tendencies, and their ‘Hue’ determines their social standing (as well as job prospects) while their potential to commit criminal acts is summarized as the ‘Crime Coefficient’. In this dystopia, people found to have a crime coefficient above a certain number can be detained or executed on the spot by the police.

On the face of it, this sounds like ham-fisted commentary on state surveillance and police brutality. In execution, it’s written fantastically and is possibly the smartest cyberpunk I’ve ever seen in any medium. It has female protagonists through two seasons and two movies, and while I wish they’d let the women be more more in combat, the women are far from incompetent and rarely subjected to sexual threat.

Psycho Pass S2 Review - YouTube

Since it began airing in 2012, it’s gotten a bit convoluted with three seasons and multiple movies that go between those seasons chronologically, so I’ve put together a watch guide.

Continue reading “Psycho-Pass Watch Order”

Recent reads: a post-post-apocalyptic lesbian adventure at sea and an alien invasion

For the most part, this book is okay and even enjoyable. The prose isn’t bad and the dialogue has a lot of verve. But there’s a weird disparity between the author’s ability to characterize (which is very good) and the author’s ability to plot (which is less good). While most of the characters in this book are fantastic and interesting, the titular protagonist is neither of those things until much later in the book, and even then she becomes interesting primarily because she’s reacting to actions taken by the interesting people around her which, again, isn’t ideal. The stakes are not very coherent until more than halfway through the book, and large chunks of the beginning feel like pure filler. The setting is very strange in that it reads like it could have been Age of Sail fantasy, but actually it’s the post-post-apocalypse future after humanity has made Earth uninhabitable and everyone lives on ships or island stations–but the tech level feels odd and uneven, to the point that I’m not sure why this takes place in this specific setting. There’s a lack of specificity to the story that makes the milieu feel like an afterthought: this book could have been space opera and nothing would have changed apart from some vocabulary, and might arguably have benefited from being either space opera or outright fantasy. For example, what’s with the protagonist’s mysterious heritage and  golden eyes that people won’t stop harping on about? Why does she have some kind of psychic/electromagnetic ability that lets her sense Earth’s cardinal points? Who knows. It’s not touched on even by the book’s end and is the only fantasy element in an otherwise science fictional setting that is, nevertheless, weirdly low-tech for what it purports to be; it feels like a leftover from a different draft and contributes to that odd YA-adjacent issue (in YA, it’s popular for the protagonist to have special parentage and special magic eyes) even though this book isn’t YA.

My reaction to the book is pretty odd as a result. I liked the romance, I liked the concentration of powerful, warlike women (everyone in power in this book is a woman, violent, experienced, and most of them are gay), the dialogue is whippy and fun and grandiose at the right places, but I skimmed a large amount of the text because large amounts of the text aren’t very compelling. This book goes on for too long, coming in at 375 pages when I reckon 200 pages would’ve done the trick. Either making the pirate captain, the admiral, or the pirate queen the protagonist would’ve improved everything significantly (especially if the pirate captain and the pirate queen furiously hate-fucks)–they’re seasoned, interesting, they have bloody history and complex motivations, and their perspective would’ve made the narrative vastly more efficient, less bogged down by the protagonist’s ignorance.

Do I recommend this book? Sure thing, because the lesbian romance is good and the majority of the characters are bloodthirsty women with complex pasts, and what made me skim large chunks of this book may be less of a slog to others. As a bonus, the author is a queer woman.

I really wanted to like this one but, throughout, I couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling that this is a book written by a person who doesn’t read much SFF. Which by itself is fine, but it means that a lot of what’s done here feels incredibly dated, and very much out of touch. Then there are entire passages that go like this

He shrugged. “Like a million other people. You wouldn’t have noticed me at all.”
Trina’s eyes grew big. “Hold up—were you a white guy? And you took this brown kid’s face?”
Horizon raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“You didn’t! Horizon!” She looked around, almost expecting there to be hidden cameras in the bushes, as if this were all some retro prank. “You can’t—you can’t take other people’s faces, their races, and wear them like—like a suit!”
“Oh, race is a construction,” he said, waving his hand. “Everyone knows that.”
“That might be, but it’s still meaningful. Constructs mean things.”

[…]

He shrugged again. “Well, you can feel however you want about it, obviously.”
“Horizon, listen to me. You’re being so color-blind it’s racist!”
He looked stung, as if she had struck him. “I can’t believe you would use that word on me. How long have you known me?”

I mean, ok. It’s… well, it’s nails on chalkboard, isn’t it. I’m not one to complain that real people don’t talk like this but the problem is that the author hasn’t convinced me these people, given their context, would talk like this. It’s not an isolated thing–characters talk like this a lot (‘Nice try. I’m not about to let you oppress me with your systems of heteronormativity, stud’). Check out this positive review from Publisher’s Weekly.

Trina shakes her subsequent alcoholic depression just long enough to take on a “vengeful quest” to confront a former friend whom she fought with years before over identity politics, and to save a lost boy from the effects of the Seep.

‘Identity politics’ indeed.

So, assuming that maybe the reader isn’t supposed to take any of these conversations seriously (‘You can’t use other people for your own purposes any longer. This stops now!’), what are we left with? We’re left with a mildly interesting premise that sounds better in marketing copy than in execution, and which glowing reviews have compared to Ursula le Guin and Sheri Tepper. Which is probably accurate in the sense that I’m not sure the author has read science fiction any more recent than those, because the stilted style also reminds me of older fiction, to say nothing of the ideas explored which–as said–are pretty dated. Societal order collapses and utopia rises from it; people are joined in alien hivemind; everyone has total freedom to act and eating meat is painful because humans are joined to the pain of everything so most people are vegans now (really?). I think for this book to work, there needs to be a strong emotional core and in this case it just isn’t there, or what’s there doesn’t work for me.

As a whole, this book contains barely enough substance to fill a short story (30 pages, tops), let alone the 216 pages it occupies in hardback. Which is a shame, because as a short story it could’ve been decent.